A volunteer transports leaves and brush off the trail during the Housatonic River Walk cleanup for the annual Earth Day Workday on April 19, 2014, in Great Barrington, Mass. / Stephanie Zollshan, The Berkshire Eagle, via AP
"NEW YORK â?? Generations, political ideologies, styles and social differences were bridged, if but for a brief moment, as thousands marched along the vehicle-less (Fifth) avenue. It was an experiment to see, hear and smell what is is like to be free of honking horns and gushing exhausts."
Those words describing the first Earth Day in 1970 were part of a story two other reporters and I wrote for the Elizabeth, N.J., Daily Journal. At the time, concerns about the environment were only beginning to enter the mainstream, prompted by worsening smog in our major cities and pictures of Ohio's Cuyahoga River on fire in 1969. Congress had created the Environmental Protection Agency just months before that first Earth Day, but the agency had not yet opened for business.
To grasp how much attitudes about the environmental movement have changed over the past 44 years, consider a resolution the Daughters of the American Revolution passed to rebut Earth Day in 1970: "The real problem of pollution of our environment is being distorted and exaggerated by emotional declarations and by intensive propaganda."
Tuesday, as we observe another Earth Day, there is broad public support for cleaner air and water, and as a nation we have taken dramatic steps to improve the environment.
The coming challenge is what to do about climate change, which a nearly unanimous collection of scientists says is real and potentially calamitous if we don't act now to reduce greenhouse gases.
Yet, the American public â?? in fact, the global public â?? seems unmoved by the threats, and some deniers still cling to positions that echo the DAR's attack on the environmental movement back in 1970.
Indeed, a Gallup Poll in March found that only about a third of the American public worry "a great deal" about climate change and global warming.
That finding reinforces two attitudes that have not changed over the past four decades:
First of all, we aren't motivated to do anything about environmental problems until they are staring us in the face. Only when our foul air caused breathing problems, and water became too polluted to drink or wade into, did we spend the money for federal, state and local governments to tackle the problems.
Second, the vast majority of us won't sacrifice our high-consumption lifestyles, put jobs at risk or pay a high price to protect the environment. Give up our big SUVs? Pay higher gas taxes? Spend more time in the dark?
Even "green" consumers who ride bikes are part of the problem if they are always connected to the Internet. Various studies estimate it increases our electricity consumption by 10% to 20% (and it's dirty coal that generates most electricity). Then there are the pollutants emitted by the giant data storage centers.
If we are to save ourselves and our planet from ourselves, the answer now â?? as back in 1970 â?? is the same: science and technology. Better purification systems have cleaned our water and air. Car exhaust emissions are down because of catalytic converters and engineering changes that make vehicles more fuel efficient. Light bulbs are more energy-efficient.
Renewable energy sources offer cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels, though wind-power investment has recently declined as fracking operations to produce more oil have spread.
I am hoping we finally invent a "clean" hydrogen car before we are doomed as a species. Another promising avenue way down the road: harnessing the process by which plants produce chlorophyll. There is no lack of that totally clean energy source.
Until then, I suppose we'll continue to mark each Earth Day, then drive home, turn on the TV, take a swig of water from our plastic bottles and check out the latest post on our Facebook pages.
Ullmann is managing editor for print news.
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Read the original story: Voices: On Earth Day 2014, a climate change challenge